Three Icons of the Delta: The River, The Plantation, and The Juke.

The River:

The Mississippi River as it flows through the Delta.  Photo by Alisa Kirk, February 2002.

At 8:00 AM on April 21, 1927, the Mississippi River crevassed its levee at Mound Landing, Mississippi. The flood that resulted made an inland sea more than 125 miles across and 150 miles long, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The River can be a destroyer.

Fifteen thousand years ago, when global sea levels were 300 feet lower than today, the Mississippi River gouged a deep valley in the lower Gulf Coast plain. As the glaciers covering North America melted, The River carried sediments from almost half of the continent through this valley, depositing a layer of pure alluvial soils that are "endlessly deep, dark and sweet, (David, Cohn, 1948.  Where I was Born and Raised)" and the finest agricultural land in the World. The River can be a creator.

For thousands of years before man-made levees created artificial banks, the Mississippi River flooded annually. The flat Delta presents few obstacles to the flow of water, but slows its current, depositing an annual dressing of new soil. Over the course of the millennia, this dressing has grown to an average depth of 130 feet, with depths of 350 feet in some places (John, Barry, 1997.  Rising Tide). The River can be a preserver.

"With us, when you speak of "the river," though there be many, you mean always the same one, the great river, the shifting, unappeasable god of the country, feared and loved, the Mississippi." William Alexander Percy, 1941, Lanterns on the Levee.

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The Plantation:

Dockery Farms is the quintessential delta plantation.  It was still wilderness in 1895 when Will Dockery started farming near Ruleville and Cleveland, Mississippi.  As the canebreaks and forests were cleared, and crops planted, Dockery grew, eventually supporting over 2,000 workers.  From this historic seed house, one could see the Dockery railroad terminal, which had its own full time ticket agent.  At one time, Dockery paid its workers in its own coins, had its own doctor, well stocked commissary, and supported two churches. 

At one time, Charlie Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown, all extremely important Blues originators, lived at Dockery.ralph lauren sales ralph lauren solde ralph lauren online outlet polo ralph lauren pas cher   Dockery Farms is the birthplace of the Delta blues.

and the Juke:

Po' Monkey's Lounge, in Merigold, Mississippi, is one of the last surviving rural jukes.  The word Juke is of West African origin, and means "wicked."  Jukes like this one have always been places where farm workers could relax, drink beer, and listen to music.  The Blues evolved in Jukes.  Monkey's is operated by Mr. William Seeberry, and is only open now on Thursday nights.

For more about Po' Monkey's, check out the article in Southern Spaces at

http://www.southernspaces.org/2006/inside-poor-monkeys

 

The River created the Delta and suited it to agriculture.  Plantations began as lumbering operations and moved into farming as soon as the land was cleared.  Cotton and corn required huge work forces and drew thousands of African Americans, Southern Europeans, Russian Jews, Italians, Lebanese, and Chinese to the region.  All ethnicities contributed to the Delta, and the work songs of Black field laborers, molded through the Jukes on every plantation, gave rise to The Blues. 

Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and Howlin?Wolf, all  played in Jukes in the countryside and towns immediately surrounding Delta State University.  Some of these men, and many who followed, moved to Chicago and other Northern cities and connected their rural art form to urban America by electrifying their guitars and transforming their rhythms.  Muddy Waters, Mose Alisson, B.B. King, and Bukka White all moved from the Delta to national fame.  A complete list of the bluesmen that came out of the delta would include hundreds of names.

The Blues transformed American music.  It is a direct ancestor of virtually all popular American musical genres, including its urban great-grandchild, Rap.  Its impact on Rock is undeniable.  Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Warren Zevon, Fleetwood Mac, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers have all covered songs of Robert Johnson alone, as have Hank Williams Jr., The Cowboy Junkies, Kenny Rogers, and The Turtle Island String Quartet. 

The Blues is more than music.  The poetry of The Blues continues to inspire even though the rural lifestyle from which it sprang no longer exists.  Blues pilgrims from the US, Europe, Asia, and Africa regularly visit the Delta, and independent film and radio crews looking for Blues material abound.  University classes have been based on Blues lyrics (e.g., ?a href="http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSIC/blues/rjhome3.html">The Robert Johnson Notebooks?at The University of Virginia).  Other classes have explored the cultural significance of The Blues (e.g., The Mississippi Delta Blues and American Culture?at George Mason University).  The Blues is part of the American story.  It includes facets of geography, history, African American studies, literature, poetry, and art, as well as music.  Scholarly papers have been written on everything from the impact of the blues on gender roles to the Africanisms revealed by Blues instruments and rhythms. 

Three icons of the Delta:  The River, The Plantation, and The Juke

return to the Delta Center website at www.blueshighway.org.